Research Guide: Family History Research
The Reserve Bank of Australia is the custodian of a unique collection of banking records that capture almost 200 years of Australia's economic history. The collection includes colonial, savings and central banking records, with many inherited from the RBA's predecessor, the original Commonwealth Bank of Australia (together with the Reserve Bank, we refer to these two institutions as the 'Bank'), which operated from 1912 until January 1960.
The Bank's archives date from 1824 and are constantly evolving as records are added to the collection and other records fall into the open access period (currently 20 years from date of creation). Records include banking information relating to convicts and prominent colonial administrators; the Depression of the 1930s; World War I and World War II; and the GFC (Global Financial Crisis). As would be expected, the records also reflect the social history of the times in which they were created, including information about the nation's relationship with money and the banking systems of their day. Information can be accessed via files or viewed through photographs, brochures or advertising material, as examples.
The National Archives of Australia has identified the Bank’s archives as having enduring value and significance, not just for the Bank but for Australian society more generally. Given the extent of the archives, they may be a valuable resource for family history research and genealogy.
You could find a family member within the records if they worked for the Bank, for example. In addition, some banking or legislative requirements may have captured an individual name. If someone opened a bank account with a colonial bank whose records we hold, or if a businessperson, sporting star or entertainer applied to take money outside of Australia, a record of this process may be held in the archives.
Further information about the archives can be viewed at ‘Being Unreserved: About the Reserve Bank of Archives’.
Because of the Reserve Bank’s long history, the Bank’s archives are a rich source of information. The original Commonwealth Bank, from which the Reserve Bank descends, expanded rapidly after its establishment, due in part to the advent of the First World War. Within a short space of time, the Bank had opened branches and offices in every state of Australia, and in London. An office in New York and branches in Papua and New Guinea followed. This expansion saw the Commonwealth Bank reach all areas of Australian society, here and abroad.
The Reserve Bank’s history has similarly been shaped by the places in which the Bank has had a presence - in all capitals of Australia and overseas - and through the people who have connected with it, whether this be through employment, as a customer or as a member of the public. Any of these connections may be a valuable link for a researcher to explore.
This research guide aims to highlight parts of the collection that are most likely to contain records relating to individuals, including staff, customers, and the public.
‘Unreserved’ is the online platform through which the Bank shares its digitised archives. The records on this platform are available in a variety of media and formats, including paper records, volumes, photographs, glass plate negatives and audio content. All of these have the potential to be a valuable source of information for family history research. However, not all records are open for public viewing due to privacy or copyright, and personal information may have been redacted to protect the privacy of an individual.
While the intention of Unreserved is for visitors to the site to independently undertake their own research, the Bank’s archivists can be contacted for advice and assistance. Contact information is available on Unreserved’s ‘Contact Us’ page.
Colonial Banking Records
Colonial banking records provide an important snapshot of life in pre-Federation Australia before 1901, and as such are a rich source of information. They can be an excellent resource for a family historian, as they capture names, banking details, and geographical data.
The colonial records represent the earliest records held by the Reserve Bank. The Bank's collection of Savings Bank of New South Wales records include a few significant records that originated with the New South Wales Savings Bank, established by Robert Campbell in 1819 and known informally as Campbell’s Bank. Records include ledgers, registers of mortgages, signature registers, staff details and minutes of meetings, for the Head Office of the bank and its network of branches.
The earliest record held in the Bank’s archives is an 1824 mortgage document from Campbell’s Bank, written on vellum or calf skin. It is one in a series of seven records from the Savings Bank of New South Wales collection and relates to 100 acres of land in the district of Petersham in Sydney. This land was originally granted to John Austin by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1819. Austin sold the land to Thomas Wylde on the 2 September 1824 for the sum of ‘... one hundred pounds of lawful money of Great Britain’. Over a period of 13 years, the land was transferred to a number of early colonists, with each transfer being recorded. The last transfer occurred on 20 September 1865 and the record is stamped by the Land Titles Office, indicating it was lodged there.
Another colonial-era record held by the Bank is a ‘return of convicts balances for 1833–1856, for ships arriving in the Colony between 1826–1840’. This document lists the names of convicts and the ships on which they arrived, and as such is an important record and a source of information. Its contents may potentially complement or corroborate records held elsewhere, including at state libraries and archives.
Of interest are the number of bank accounts held by women, including the account of convict-turned-businesswoman Mary Reibey, who is on Australia’s $20 banknote. Mary appears in the ledger for 1832–1842, where her deposits for the years 1833–1834 are detailed. She also appears in the Savings Bank's Trustee Minutes Book for 1832-1855, where her application for a £500 loan was approved in 1834. It is possible to trace the financial records of an individual across records and series, allowing a researcher to see the financial progress of that individual. In Mary’s case, she became a successful and wealthy businessperson, and this is reflected in the balances of her account and the approval of the substantial loan. Other well-known people whose names appear in these records include Ludwig Leichhardt, Conrad Martens, Robert Campbell, William Lithgow, and William Wentworth. Their records sit alongside those of lesser-known individuals, including the free settlers, ticket of leave and freed convicts and political prisoners, some of which had substantial amounts of money. Additional information about the Savings Bank of New South Wales and banking in colonial times can be found in the following guides:
- ‘Series Guide: Savings Bank of New South Wales’
- ‘Research Guide: Convict Banking’
- ‘Research Guide: Colonial Australian Bank Accounts.’
Other banking records that document the history of colonial era banking in Australia include the records of the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales (established in 1871) and the records of various state savings banks such as the Queensland Government Savings Bank, the Moreton Bay Savings Bank, the State Savings Bank of Western Australia, and the State Savings Bank of Tasmania.
The Government Savings Bank records date from the establishment of the bank in 1871 through to the early 1930s, when the bank merged with the Commonwealth Bank. Its core business centred around administration of the bank’s branches. The branch activities related to the financial and business transactions of customers across various districts and the records of these activities contain correspondence about the banking systems, including correspondence to individual customers. The Head Office records include the names of staff, and some individual staff records exist.
The State Savings Bank records include records of banks in Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania. The earliest records are of the Moreton Bay Savings Bank, which was established near Brisbane in Queensland in 1856. At the time, this was part of the Colony of New South Wales. It merged with the Queensland Government Savings Bank in 1865. The Moreton Bay Savings Bank series consists of just seven records, including a depositors’ ledger, a passbook, a specimen passbook and four individual deposit vouchers for the period 1856–1864. The deposit vouchers include the name of the account holder and receipt for the amounts deposited into the bank. Names of depositors include Mary Pritchard and Archibald Campbell. Mr Phelan, the bank’s Managing Trustee, is also mentioned.
The Queensland Government Savings Bank series contains records from 1865 to 1920, prior to the bank amalgamating with the Commonwealth Bank. The records relate to branches in Brisbane, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Townsville, and Warwick, and include depositors’ ledgers, registers, publications, and bank reports.
The State Savings Bank of Tasmania records date mainly from 1906 to 1912 (the bank amalgamated with the Commonwealth Bank in 1913), although there are some earlier registers for the Avoca and Fingal branches dating from 1896, when the branches were operating as Post Office Savings Banks. Most records relate to the bank’s depositors.
The State Savings Bank of Western Australia records date from the bank’s establishment as a Post Office Savings Bank in 1863. Its records include depositors’ ledgers, signature registers, customer declarations and legislative requirements. The depositors’ ledgers and signature registers include accounts from the Head Office in Perth and the branches at Claremont, Collie, Cottesloe, Fremantle, Katanning, and Moora. The bank amalgamated with the Commonwealth Bank in 1931. There are references to staff among the records, and some individual staff files exist.
Further information about these banks is available in the following guides:
- ‘Series Guide: Government Savings Bank of New South Wales’
- ‘Series Guide: Moreton Bay Savings Bank’
- ‘Series Guide: Queensland Government Savings Bank’
- ‘Series Guide: State Savings Bank of Tasmania’
- ‘Series Guide: State Savings Bank of Western Australia.’
Commonwealth Bank and Reserve Bank records
The Reserve Bank’s records span the establishment of the original Commonwealth Bank in 1912 under the governorship of Denison Miller, through to the formation of the Reserve Bank in 1960, as Australia’s central bank under Dr HC Coombs, and to the present day.
Of interest to a family historian are the records relating to staff employed by the Bank from 1912 and biographical information, including for senior personnel. Documents created and signed by staff as well as other staff-related material- can also be found across series of records. Branch records, including information about staff and customers, also form part of this collection. How the central bank has conducted itself throughout the years is also captured, with records providing insight into, and context for, matters ranging from the Bank’s policies and governance, through to the workplace norms of the day, including employment conditions. Understanding the workplace conditions under which a family member worked, and the roles they may have performed, could add to the overall picture of the individual. There may also be a photograph or First or Second World War details in the archives. This information could complement records about a family member found elsewhere, such as from the Australian War Memorial.
Further information about the Bank’s records relating to the First World War is available in the following resources:
Of interest to many people is that women were employed by the Bank from its early days, initially in administrative and clerical roles, but later in policy roles. The first female assistant economist was appointed in 1932. The number of women joining the Bank grew particularly during wartime, when men left their roles at the Bank to enlist, with women taking on roles in Head Office and in branches throughout Australia and overseas. Photographs are often a good source of information for this time, although many women are not named and therefore may not be identifiable. If a female family member worked for the Bank during this time, you may find her among these records.
Correspondence with the Governor and with the Bank
The records also contain correspondence with the Governors of the Bank since 1912. The correspondence captures personal information and letters written by staff and the public, as well as the more high-level correspondence between the Bank and the government of the day. Many of the letters, particularly those written during wartime, indicate a warmth and paternalism in the reply from the Governor of the day. Letters from staff serving in the First World War are among the most moving, with staff detailing their experiences on the battlefield, including from Gallipoli, while also wishing the Bank good luck and good wishes for its future.
While letters from staff give insight into their lives, letters from the public give insight into the central bank governor as a public figure. The themes of these letters vary with economic conditions and correspondence comes from those in all levels of society. While many famous people have written to the Governor over the years, including Sir Donald Bradman and Sir Sidney Nolan, the letters from ordinary citizens are as significant in their appreciation for the Bank and in their concerns for the future.
Glass plate negatives, photographs, and other audio-visual material
The Bank has a collection of over 15,000 photographs and negatives that are of archival significance, including 700 glass plate negatives that were created from 1913, when the Bank had the foresight to commission photographers to capture the construction of Head Office and branch buildings in towns and cities across Australia. While the focus of the photographs is the Bank, the images also capture the built environment of the early 20th century – the street scenes, transport, occupations, fashion and social life of a city or town. Bank staff appearing in the photographs have been identified by name in many cases.
In addition, the Bank has a collection of films, recordings, and interviews with staff, including women employed by the Bank. This collection is a potential source of interest for family history research, including for the insightful recollections of the Bank and, in the case of recordings, the voice of the person being interviewed.
Exchange Control records
Australia's Exchange Control system was introduced in 1939 and ran until the floating of the Australian dollar in 1983. It controlled all transactions between Australian and foreign entities, with only authorised banks, as agents of the Bank, permitted to convert foreign currencies into Australian dollars. Individuals were also required to gain approval to convert Australian dollars into foreign currencies, for travel or business. The Bank’s archives contain details of these transactions, including applications by individuals to transfer foreign currency offshore because of business or personal travel.
Of particular interest are the files in the 1930s through to the 1970s relating to entertainers, actors and professional sports people who applied to have money earned in Australia transferred to their home countries. Celebrities who visited Australia and for whom the Bank has exchange control records include Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr, Laurence Olivier, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Katharine Hepburn, Margot Fonteyn, and Frank Sinatra, along with famous sporting teams and identities such as the Harlem Globetrotters. However, most of the records relate to the correspondence and applications submitted by members of the public, and as such are a source of information regarding individuals and their lives.
The Bank’s Exchange Control records are not yet available on Unreserved, but they are an important source of information for family historians where access is available.
Bank Magazines – Bank Notes and Currency
The Bank’s staff magazines are a rich source of information about the Bank and its employees. The first staff magazine, Bank Notes, was published by the Bank from December 1918 until the separation of the central bank function in 1960. The magazine was initially intended to provide staff at home and on service abroad with news about each other and was to be a ‘recorder of military and civilian life as affected by war’ (Bank Notes 1924). Later, it developed into a magazine about staff news and sporting activities. As such, it is a wonderful resource for family historians who may be researching a Bank employee.
The magazine was produced monthly until March 1937, after which it was changed to a quarterly publication, with the first quarterly issue released in June that year. It continued to be a vehicle for news and information and staff activities, but its coverage was also expanded to include articles on broader topics of interest, including relating to Australian life and public affairs (Bank Notes 1937).
In 1951, the Bank introduced a monthly staff journal, Currency, to run alongside the quarterly Bank Notes magazine. Currency is still published today. Content for the journal came from across the Bank, with departments and state offices appointing Currency representatives, with the specific aim of gathering information and writing content. Staff were encouraged to share their ideas and problems (Currency 1951), and among the featured stories were sporting accomplishments, news of travels, staff appointments, resignations, retirements, births, deaths, and marriages.
How to search records on Unreserved
Records available on Unreserved have been indexed where possible, meaning their content can be searched using the ‘Search’ feature on the online platform. Handwritten records are unable to be indexed and so need to be searched manually. Some early records have an index that provides a way into the records, but for others it is necessary to review each page. The titles and date ranges of records listed on Unreserved enable researchers to narrow a search to only those records of relevance. Further information on how to search the records is available on the ‘Using Unreserved’ page.
To assist with context, guides to Commonwealth and Reserve Bank departments and branches, Governors and senior personnel, and other topics of interest are available on Unreserved’s ‘Guides’ page.
Useful resources for family history research
The Reserve Bank has resources available that may assist in providing context and be useful for family history research purposes. These include the following:
- ‘Hidden History of Banking’
- ‘Before Sunset: The Bank and World War I’
- ‘From Bank to Battlefield’
- ‘Reflections of Martin Place’.
This information is drawn from records held by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the following sources:
Bank Notes (1924), 6(12), November.
Bank Notes (1937), 19(3), November.
Butlin SJ (1968), Foundations of the Australian Monetary System 1788–1851, Sydney University Press, Sydney.
Cornish S (2010), The Evolution of Central Banking in Australia, Reserve Bank of Australia, Sydney.
Currency (1951), 1(2), 1 July.
MacDonald V and J Dwyer (2019), ‘Being Unreserved: About the Reserve Bank Archives’, RBA Bulletin, December.
Schedvin B (1992), In Reserve, Central Banking in Australia, 1945-75, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.
While records held in the Bank’s archives have the potential to be of interest to a family historian, not all have been digitised or uploaded to Unreserved. This is a gradual process and if you cannot locate a name, it may mean that this record has not yet been added, or that the Bank does not hold any information about the individual. Early banking records are not complete and represent only those records that survived the colonial era (in this context defined as pre-Federation, before 1901).